How Does Memory Work? 3 Stages of Memory Development in Witnesses

How does memory work? Usually, memory development occurs in three stages.

how does memory work

Witnesses to shoplifting and employee theft behavior can sometimes provide valuable details about the incident to investigators. But are those details necessarily accurate?

How much stock can we put into the information recounted by a witness? Are they remembering everything that they observed? How does memory work, anyway?

For the Interviewing column in the January-February 2019 issue of LP Magazine, David E. Zulawski, CFI, CFE, and Shane G. Sturman, CFI, CPP, take a closer look at the evaluation of memory processes as they relate to the witnessing of an event or incident. According to the authors, most researchers classify the development of memories as occurring in three stages: the acquisition stage, the retention stage, and the retrieval stage. The column expands on each of these:

Acquisition Stage. When a witness first observes an event, only some of the details are observed and stored as part of the subsequent memory. The witness has to determine based on their observations which details are worth remembering based on where their eyes were focused and which details might be important later in deciding what to do.

Retention Stage. The retention stage is the time between the observation of the event and recalling the details observed. The retention period could be a matter of moments or a much longer period of time depending on the witness’s need to talk about the actions. The retention stage of the observation can be affected when the witness is privy to new information. This new information could be provided by other witnesses to the event, media reporting, the interviewer’s questioning the witness, or a variety of other sources.

Retrieval Stage. This part of the memory can be one of the more difficult components since the memory is not stored in one particular location in the brain but rather spread throughout the brain and linked in many different ways using our senses. The accuracy of the witness’s information retrieval can be affected in all three of these areas. If the witness failed to observe a particular detail of the event, there is no memory of it, but questions posed may infer information that taints the retention. The other issue is the words used by the witness to describe the situation and the interviewer’s assumptions of what they mean.

Beyond these three stages, however, additional elements like time elapsed, frequency of experience, and relevant details also come into play in the formation of memory. The authors touch on all of these and more. They also dig into even more complex questions: how does memory work when stress and certain expectations and cultural biases are present? To read the full column, check out “Evaluating Memory: I Remember It This Way, Part Two.”

You can also visit the Table of Contents for the January-February 2019 issue or register for a free subscription to the magazine. [Note: if you’re already a logged-in subscriber, the previous link will take you to the current issue instead.]

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